SHALIMAR — The Okaloosa County Commission has directed its staff to look at making several in-house changes in hopes of making the county's Tourist Development Department more efficient.
Commissioners agreed at their Wednesday workshop to go in that direction and hold off, at least for now, on using a not-for-profit group to oversee the TDD’s sales and marketing efforts.
Based on concerns from tourism industry leaders, commissioners agreed to have their staff consider boosting the compensation of the TDD sales staff, giving more expenditure authority to the department and helping it become more nimble in response to fast-changing market conditions.
Such alterations could “help us start moving toward the changes that the industry needs,” Commissioner Nathan Boyles said.
The Tourist Development Council agreed last week to share with the commission the concept of a not-for-profit destination marketing organization (DMO) to oversee the sales/marketing efforts. Local chambers of commerce and tourism industry officials say an outside group would handle such efforts better than a government agency.
For example, Ken Wampler, past chairman of the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce, noted that as a government entity, the TDD cannot provide commission-based compensation to its sales staff. However, an incentivized sales staff of a private DMO would get more people to visit the area and support local businesses, he said.
Commissioners, however, agreed that using a DMO would be too vast of a change at this time. And Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel said the board of directors of such an organization would just add another layer of bureaucracy to tourism promotion efforts.
The tourism industry’s concepts for the DMO include having it coexist with the traditional TDC while being funded by revenue from two pennies of the county’s 5-cent bed tax. But Boyles said he would not be comfortable with putting 40 percent of the tourism revenue in the hands of a private group.
He made reference to the TDD’s former director, Mark Bellinger, who killed himself in May 2012 after his fraudulent use of millions of dollars of bed tax and BP oil spill dollars came to light.
“We recovered almost every penny that went missing in the Bellinger case,” Boyles said. “But people don’t know that. They focus on the money that went missing in the first place.”
Boyles complained that the concept for the DMO calls for eliminating or exempting 16 county procedures for the TDD. For example, it calls for eliminating legal review of payments on items costing more than $25,000.
“We have to find a place of balance,” Boyles said. “The (tourism) industry wants to be nimble, but the citizens want accountability.”
Commissioner Kelly Windes agreed.
“There is maybe a little too much freedom for this DMO right now,” he said. “I know (the conceptual plan is just a draft, but it’s certainly not ready for prime time. I’m still interested in this. I think it could work. But our legal team has to examine it. We’ve got work to do.”